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Fashion Conscious: How to Be a Responsible Steward

The $20 sweater was a great buy—but was it ultimately the best for everyone involved in my purchase?

"I love your dress!"

"Thanks! I got it for $30—on sale!"

How many times have you had some variation on this conversation? I've been on both ends hundreds of times, and it almost always involves some proud disclosure of big savings.

When it comes to our consumption of clothing, we value thrift. We pride ourselves on using our resources wisely and getting the best deal possible. We want to share our triumph with our friends, our family, anyone who displays even a passing interest in what we are wearing.

As someone on a limited budget who also happens to enjoy fashion, I have spent a considerable amount of time honing my deal-finding abilities. But in all the hours spent browsing the clearance racks, signing up for any and every sample sale site, and promising myself that this time I really was only going to buy the two things on my shopping list at Target and not even look at the clothes—only to walk out with several new tanks tops I didn't know I needed— I never questioned the idea that, when it came to shopping, thrift was the ultimate good (after style, of course).

That changed when I read Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Kline. Many of the facts she shares about what makes a $20 pair of pants possible drove home the point that when it comes to clothes, we must consider more than just cost if we wish to honor God as stewards of our resources. She argues that we're kidding ourselves if we believe the person who made those pants were paid a fair wage, or that it could be made of quality, sustainable fabric, or that it reflects a designer's original, creative work.

Even beyond issues of ethical wages and environmental sustainability, cheap clothes perpetuate the cycle of consumption. We have come to view clothing as disposable, and we don't think twice about dropping a seemingly insignificant amount of cash on an article of clothing we know won't last and might not even fit us that well. When it rips, or when we just don't like it anymore, we'll buy another one. We have detached clothing from its sources and methods of production; this is not a healthy way to view our possessions.
I finished the book with the overwhelming question: what now? Sure, it would be great to be able to make my own clothes, or to buy garments only from designers committed to ethical production and quality fit and fabric. But I have limited time, and limited resources.
So I set myself a challenge: in the second half of 2012, I would not purchase any new clothing unless it was used or vintage, or if it was made from high-quality, sustainable fabrics, by a person who had been paid a living wage.

It didn't take long to realize that my issues with consumption were far deeper than I initially realized. Barely a day went by that I wasn't struck by an impulsive desire for an article of clothing I needed to complete an outfit, to wear to a specific event, or to replace another article of clothing showing light signs of wear. I had to talk myself down from lunchtime trips to Target, post-work stops at H&M, a swing by Nordstrom Rack. When I went home, I often realized I already owned something that would work just fine. And if I didn't, I forced myself to wear something I had anyway.

Clothing consumption isn't just about the ubiquitous availability and low cost of fashionable items. More often than not, it's a reflection of our dissatisfaction, of our belief that an article of clothing or a pair of shoes will transform us into a different person—all for only $17.99! But this is, of course, far from the truth. Yet another new article of clothing, cheaply made and cheaply bought, only magnifies the deficiency when we just as quickly realize we are, in fact, no different from how we were before—though perhaps out $17.99.
When I forced myself to stop distracting myself from any and every emotional hole with something new, I had to do the hard, sometimes long, work of facing those insecurities instead.

Recently, the words of Revelations 21:5 have struck me: "Behold, I am making all things new." Through fast fashion, I had been trying to make myself new, settling for the superficial, when God promises real, lasting, meaningful change. He wants to make me not just more like myself, but more like himself. And that is something no $20 sweater could ever hope to offer.

What do you think? How do your shopping choices reflect God's stewardship and loving our neighbors all around the world?

Laura Leonard is associate editor of BuildingChurchLeaders.com and is also a contributing writer for the TCW Blog and Her.meneutics. Follow Laura on Twitter at @lmarieleonard.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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